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Amazon offers digital downloads

Answering a challenge from CDnow and perhaps hinting at a future direction of its site, Amazon.com launches a digital downloads area within its music store.

    Answering a challenge from CDnow and perhaps hinting at a future direction of its site, Amazon.com launched a digital downloads area within its music store yesterday, providing free full-length songs from major recording artists.

    The new area comes three weeks after CDnow launched its revamped site, following its merger with N2K. CDnow claims to offer customers thousands of sound samples in Real Audio and MP3 formats.

    Like CDnow, Amazon already offers numerous sound clips for the CDs it sells. Last month, it allowed customers to download two songs from Sarah McLachlan's "Mirrorball" album in Liquid Audio Format. But this is the first time the site has offered a collection of full-length songs for download.

    However, the collection of songs is modest. Amazon's free downloads area offers some 25 songs from 14 artists including McLachlan, Lyle Lovett, Public Enemy, Cowboy Junkies, and Cheap Trick.

    Almost all of the songs are available in Liquid Audio Format. Some are also offered as MP3 files.

    Amazon said in a press release that it planned to expand the number of tracks available in the future.

    Of course, digital downloads of full-length songs are not new. Numerous Netizens have used the MP3 format to upload pirated songs and albums to the Net. And artists such as Public Enemy, Tom Petty, and Counting Crows have made music available through MP3 and other music formats.

    Meanwhile, sites such as MP3.com and Lycos provide links to and collections of songs in MP3 format.

    But Amazon's site is one of the first to try to use free full-length downloads as a way of encouraging customers to buy CDs. Amazon has already jumped into the lead in online music sales after entering the area last June.

    Financial analyst Derek Brown of Volpe Brown Whelan, suggested in an interview last month with CNET News.com that eventually Amazon might be selling digital products instead of physical ones.

    "Books, music, and videos are ultimately digitally downloadable," Brown said.

    Amazon spokesman Paul Capelli said that while the company did plan to sell digital downloadable music in the future, the music industry first needed to make more music available in digital form and needed to figure out the security issues involved in digital downloads. For now, Capelli said, the full-length free downloads would be used to promote upcoming CDs.

    "As a promotional vehicle, right now, they're very effective," Capelli said.